Brandenburg Concerto #3 in G Major, BWV 1048 (1721)
J.S. Bach (b. Eisenach, 1685; d. Leipzig, 1750)
In 1721, when he held the post of Kapellmeister at the court of the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, Bach dedicated six Concertos avec plusiers instruments to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg. A catalog of the “diverse instruments” invoked on Bach’s title page reads like a list of what was possible in the medium of the concerto in the Baroque era, as no two concertos have the same combination of instruments. Bach had probably collected the works over a period of years, dating as far back as his tenure at the court of the Duke of Weimar.
The dedicatee, who was the uncle of the King of Prussia and an avid collector of the latest fashions in musical scores, maintained his own musical establishment at a level suiting his status. Bach had known Christian Ludwig for at least a couple of years, but there is still considerable discussion about why the composer chose to send his works to the Margrave at this time. The Margrave probably lacked the musical forces to perform the works properly; he put them on his shelf and never called for their performance. When the Margrave died in 1734, the manuscript passed from his library to an archive in Brandenburg, where it was not recovered until 1849. Its publication the following year marked the centenary of the composer’s death.
In 1950 Wolfgang Schmieder published his monumental catalog of Bach’s works, the Bach Werke Verzeichnis, catagorizing all of the compositions and giving each one a number. The Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, an orchestral concerto, became BWV 1048. While there are no designated soloists, each member of the ensemble becomes a soloist at one time or other. Grouped in trios, the three violins, three violas and three cellos are joined by the continuo group (harpsichord and a bass string instrument, usually doubling the lowest cello part but occasionally acting independently).
Taking its structural cues from Vivaldi, a composer whose work Bach greatly admired, BWV 1048 begins and ends each of the outer movements with a ritornello, a thematic statement that can be mined for further use in the interior of the movement. Individual motives from the ritornello provide material for sections in which the three orchestral “trios” (violins, violas and cellos) vie for attention. Ever the practical musician, Bach later reworked and reorchestrated the first movement in Leipzig for his church cantata on the second day of Pentecost, Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzen Gemüte, BWV 174.
The middle movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, marked Adagio (“slow, at ease”) consists of two chords that were probably an invitation for improvisation by a violin soloist and the continuo. The final movement, which has the sprightly dance character of a gigue (but is not so labeled), ends abruptly…
Sinfonia Concertante for Winds, K. 279b (1778?)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. Salzburg, 1756; d. Vienna, 1791)
The sinfonia concertante is a specialty genre. Showcasing two or more solo instruments, it has features of the symphony, with its carefully argued logical structure, the concerto, with its contest between the solo and the group, and the divertimento, with its deft, light-hearted approach. It was particularly popular among Parisian composers in the late eighteenth century, who referred to it as the symphonie concertante. As a vehicle to show off the virtuosity of instrumental soloists while introducing the most up-to-date musical styles it was ideal. In 1771 a French commentator urged that the “insipid sonata” and the “overlong concerto” should give way to the innovations of the new form.
Mozart found the genre particularly attractive. With its conversation among solo instruments, the sinfonia concertante also resembles the operatic “ensemble of perplexity,” in which several characters simultaneously present their points of view. Mozart would show his mastery of this type of ensemble in crucial scenes of The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. One can sense his excitement at the possibilities offered by an instrumental form of conversation-ensemble in a letter that he wrote to his father from Paris in April, 1778. There he announced his intention to compose a sinfonia concertante for four wind soloists (flute, oboe, bassoon and horn) whose brilliant playing he knew well. The premiere would take place at the Concert Spirituel, a concert series founded fifty years before, when it was a remarkable thing to offer the public the opportunity to buy a ticket. Concerts took place in the period preceding Easter and on other religious holidays, when the opera venues were closed.
Tellingly, Mozart wrote his letter to his father immediately after a performance at the Concert Spirituel, exactly two weeks before Easter. Imagine Mozart’s sense of betrayal, then, when he discovered that the director of the Concert Spirituel, Joseph Legros, had sequestered Mozart’s manuscript and prevented the copying of the parts. When Mozart wrote again to his father, he complained that Legros had reneged on the promised performance; further, he suspected the Italian composer Giuseppe Cambini of waging a war of intrigue.
Decades after Mozart’s death, when Ludwig Köchel was compiling his monumental catalogue of Mozart’s works, he encountered a manuscript containing a sinfonia concertante and assigned it a Köchel number. Although there are difficulties with the manuscript, such as the appearance of a clarinet rather than a flute among the soloists, the consensus is that the spirit of Mozart shines through, and that the Sinfonia Concertante, K. 279b is exemplary. As in a symphony, the themes are presented, developed and recapitulated. As in a concerto, the soloists cooperate and contest. In the final movement, a set of variations, each solo instrument gets to show off its personality, as in an operatic ensemble of complexity.
Piano Concerto No. 2 in Bb Major, Op. 83 (1878-81)
Johannes Brahms (b. Hamburg, 1833; d. Vienna, 1897)
Brahms is a member of an elite society, the handful of greatest symphonists. His four symphonies and four concertos stand as the twin pillars of his orchestral output, and the principles and forms of symphonic writing inform many other works as well. The two extraordinary piano concertos, separated by more than two decades, are cases in point. Before he had completed a symphony, Brahms composed his first piano concerto, and it marked his first major appearance as a symphonic composer.
By the time Brahms composed his Piano Concerto No. 2, he had written two symphonies, and he was ready to explore new ways of writing a concerto. Throughout much of his career, though, Brahms felt the shadow of another great symphonist, as he wrestled with the question than vexed nineteenth-century composers in general, “What do you do after Beethoven?” For Brahms, the answer did not come easily. The piano concertos cost Brahms an enormous amount of effort, which included making major revisions, the discarding of entire movements, and difficulties in deciding the performance medium. For instance, Brahms originally envisioned the Piano Concerto No. 1 as a sonata for two pianos along the lines of a symphony. When he later decided to recast it as a piano concerto, he relocated one of the movements to a new home in the German Requiem.
The Piano Concerto No. 2 is even more remarkable in its mixing of genres. Its unusual blending of elements of the symphony and the concerto has earned the piece the epithet “symphony with piano obbligato [an ‘obligatory’ part that provides musical commentary].” The concerto’s extended length stems partly from Brahms’ adding a scherzo-style movement (here the second movement) to his usual three-movement concerto scheme, bringing the concerto into direct contact with the shape of the four-movement symphony. At times, though, the work has the intimacy of chamber music. At the beginning of the first movement, for instance, the piano accompanies the solo horn, as if this were a horn sonata; only gradually is it revealed that the work is an orchestral one. In the third movement, genre-mixing reappears, as the solo cello takes over in the manner of the slow movement of a cello concerto. The eloquence the piano’s entrance in this movement is ravishing, and there are moments when time seems to be suspended. At the beginning of the final movement, Brahms thrusts his listener suddenly into the unexpected world of his “Hungarian” style.
The Piano Concerto No. 2 is legendary for its demands upon the piano soloist’s technique and stamina. At the premiere of the work in 1881, the composer himself was the soloist. He then performed the work twenty-one more times, in as many cities, in the next three months. Its popularity has never waned.
Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on four continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and of WWU’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.